Jeffrey Epstein is under indictment for sex crimes in Palm Beach, Florida, and I’d expected that when he came into the office of PR guru Howard Rubenstein, he would be sober and reserved. Quite the opposite. He was sparkling and ingenuous, apologizing for the half-hour lateness with a charming line—“I never realized how many one-way streets and no-right-turns there are in midtown. I finally got out and walked”—and as we went down the corridor to Rubenstein’s office, he asked, “Have you managed to talk to many of my friends?” Epstein had been supplying me the phone numbers of important scientists and financiers and media figures. “Do you understand what an extraordinary group of people they are, what they have accomplished in their fields?”
One of the accusers—a girl of 14—had put his age at 45, not in his fifties, and you could see why. His walk was youthful, and his face was ruddy with health. He had none of the round-shouldered, burdened qualities of middle age. There was nothing in his hands, not a paper, a book, or a phone. Epstein had on his signature outfit: new blue jeans and a powder-blue sweater. “I’ve only ever seen him in jeans,” his friend the publicist Peggy Siegal had reported, saying there was a hint of arrogance in that, Epstein’s signal that he doesn’t have to wear a uniform like the rest of us.
I told Epstein and Rubenstein the sort of story New York wanted to do, and Epstein seemed to find ironic delight in every word. “A secretive genius,” I’d said. “Not secretive, private,” he corrected in his warm Brooklyn accent. “And if I was a genius I wouldn’t be sitting here.” “A guy with sex issues.” A smile formed on Epstein’s bow-shaped lips. “What do you mean by sex issues?” Well … He was 54, had never married—I didn’t finish. “Are you channeling my mother?”
When I said we were interested in the agony of his ordeal, Rubenstein wrote out the word agony in capital letters on his pad. But agony seemed the last thing on Epstein’s soul. “It’s the Icarus story, someone who flies too close to the sun,” I said. “Did Icarus like massages?” Epstein asked.
Two years before, he had tried to explain himself to the Palm Beach police in the same way. After they came into his mansion with a search warrant and carted off massage tables and photos of naked girls and soaps shaped like genitalia, Epstein conveyed an urgent message to the detectives through his attorney. “Mr. Epstein is very passionate about massages … The massages are therapeutic and spiritually sound for him; that is why he has had many massages.” Epstein had even given $100,000 to Ballet Florida’s massage fund, so that the dancers might also be treated.
I never got to interview Epstein at length. His dream team of lawyers led by Gerald Lefcourt was negotiating a plea with Florida state prosecutors in advance of a January 7 trial date. It is expected that Epstein will plead guilty to soliciting prostitution and get an eighteen-month sentence—not that there’s likely to be a shameful admission. He has always had the confidence that comes with the power to dazzle and, though accused of “doing everything in Sodom and Gomorrah,” as one friend put it, seemed to believe that he could convince any halfway sophisticated person that he wasn’t the least bit tawdry.
“He lives in a different environment,” says Siegal. “He’s of this world. But he creates this different environment. He lives like a pasha. The most magnificent townhouse I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in everything. I’ve seen a model of the house in Santa Fe … a stone fortress. A model of the house in the Caribbean—it is not to be believed. I’ve seen photographs of the apartment in Paris … How did he get himself into that pickle? That’s the mystery of Jeffrey Epstein. He’s very mysterious. Not that many people get close to him. Not that many people know him.”
The descriptions of Epstein’s character veer between visionary and big talker. His world seems to be at an astral distance from normal humanity. He lives in what is described as the largest private residence in Manhattan, about 50,000 square feet in nine stories between Fifth and Madison on 71st. Visitors report a stuffed poodle is on the piano. The house, said one visitor, is like what Hollywood might imagine when it tries to show the superrich. When Epstein noticed the visitor’s astonishment at his surroundings, he leaned against a wall with a soft smile and tapped the paneling. “It’s all fake,” he said. Epstein grew up in Coney Island, the son of a Parks Department employee. He never got a college degree. He studied science at Cooper Union and then NYU before migrating inevitably toward wealth. For two years, he was a charismatic teacher of physics and math at the Dalton School on the Upper East Side, till Ace Greenberg, a friend of the father of one of Epstein’s students, offered him a job at Bear Stearns. In one of the charmingly inevitable accidents of Epstein’s rise, Greenberg was a senior partner of the house; Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne later told New York that Epstein’s forte was dealing with wealthier clients, helping them with their overall portfolios. Leslie Wexner, founder of Limited Brands, reportedly made Epstein his financial adviser and was instrumental in building his fortune. Epstein was no footman; he loved luxury and, in his own words, saw himself as a financial architect, someone who could show the rich how to live with their money. “I want people to understand the power, the responsibility, and the burden of their money,” he once wrote. At times, his powers seemed magical. “I think it’s all done with mirrors,” says Michael Stroll, a Chicago businessman who sued Epstein (and lost) when an oil deal didn’t work out.